What do you do for a living?
I teach NY state-mandated biology to high school students in grades 9 and 10 of a high-needs school saturated with rural poverty. Some of them choose to learn it. I also teach an elective I was allowed to create called “Food, Land, and You” about agriculture, health, and cooking. We are in the process of setting up a student-run farm CSA with real community members. Most students love this class because I try to cover topics that are relevent to their lives through the lens of sustainability with technology woven into the fabric of everyday instruction.
How would you describe what you do?
Well, I’m a teacher. Sadly, my job description hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years and neither have schools in general, which is weird because society certainly has and our jobs are technically to prepare students for the future. I try to teach more 21st Century Skills in class including technology literacy, problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. If answers are a mouse-click away, why should we have to memorize many of the things we ask our students to do?
What does your work entail?
I spend a lot if time setting up and taking down labs, cleaning tables, and picking broken test tube glass out of the sinks. My school doesn’t give me any more extra time to do this than other-subject teachers get. Some schools give science teachers an extra free period, some don’t . Some schools even have a designated lab technician that will do all of this for you. Some schools require science teachers to move their labs from class to class on a cart! Science teachers are usually busy with the variety of activities that go along with being a good science teacher and are often perceived as socially-awkward or pompous by their colleagues.
What’s a typical work week like?
The school day starts at 8:05 but I usually come in an hour early to set labs up or clean from the previous day. I can also enjoy a coffee and check science news to share before the halls are flooded by chatty teenagers. We have 9-40 minute periods. I teach 5 periods in addition to a study hall, free period, lunch, and lunch duty. Every other day a class has a double period lab block. The day ends at 2:45. We have alternating “A” and “B” days which allow for changes in the schedule. Occasionally we have an assembly or special event that breaks up a typical week.
How did you get started?
I’ve always liked science, nature, and teaching. I knew I wanted to be a science teacher since I was in high school. My undergrad was strictly environmental/forest biology and I went right to grad school for my teacher prep work. In New York State all teachers need a Masters degree anyway.
What do you like about what you do?
Teaching science allows you to be creative and to use a variety of approaches for instruction. Students and colleagues always bring in stuff…dead birds, deer hearts, hawk talons, etc. and businesses and colleges like to give things away to science teachers. I feel that science teachers are lucky because it is easy to engage students and you often reach some of those students that many other teachers have a hard time developing rapport with. The BEST part of the job….the clean slate you get at the start of the next year and being able to change things that didn’t work.
What do you dislike?
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
We’re salary…but the range varies widely by state and district’s negotiated contract. We have a step system that gives us a roughly 3% raise a year. Eight years in, I’m making about $44K a year. I think I started at around 38K. I have a colleague that is finally making $100K this year, but it is his 50th year teaching. You earn extra if you coach, tutor, chaperone, etc. There always seems to be these opportunities available to make more.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
This varies by state, drastically. In NY state you need a masters degree within 5 years of teaching and a bachelor’s degree to start. There are also all sorts of other requirements like teacher certification exams, child abuse workshops, fingerprinting, 1 year of a foreign language, student observations/teaching, and misc. program requirements at each university. Getting certified in NYS is actually a tedious process. In general, you need to be knowledgeable, patient, flexible, reliable, and have a good personality to be a good teacher.
What is most challenging about what you do?
I could write a lot about this. I teach in a high-needs, rural school that presents obvious challenges of students that lack supplies and parents that don’t value education but the most frustrating thing to me is teaching in a broken system that hasn’t evolved with the rest of the professions. Its challenging to get colleagues on board with tech literacy and it’s hard to implement initiatives if administrators aren’t supportive or too bogged down with discipline. I go to a few conferences each year and find them inspiring and rejuvenating but then I have to return to the broken system with 0% chance of changing things so I end up doing the changes in my own classroom instead.
What is most rewarding?
Students that get inspired by your actions.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Anyone can be a teacher but only a small fraction are exceptional teachers…and it takes time. I hope to be one someday. Unfortunately, the pay checks don’t distinguish between the exceptional and the bad. It’s a fun subject to teach but if you plan on teaching biology or earth science without incorporating evolution into the curriculum, you should probably do the scientific community a favor and teach something else.
How much time off do you get/take?
I get 10 sick days and 3 personal days a year. I never come close to using them all. They roll over and accumulate. We get all major holidays and summers off but a great deal of professional development curriculum work happens then, usually unpaid.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Teachers are targets by everyone for some reason. I’ve heard we’re overpaid, underpaid, lazy, underworked, can’t do “real jobs”, and even responsible for state and federal deficit problems. I feel they’re all caring individuals and are compensated fairly for what they do…I feel the exceptional ones could be compensated more though.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I want to plow through the red tape and create the right kind of learning environment that is FOR students. Schools seem to be about board meetings, capital improvement projects, taxes, bus drills, custodian needs, etc. We need to shift it to the students and their needs.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Overall, very rewarding!